By Scott Martin
Friday the 13th, USA, 1980
Directed by Sean S. Cunningham
Alfred Hitchcock created the genre: the “slasher” picture. It was 1960, and the film was Psycho. If we wanted to stretch that fact, we can claim that the original slasher film was a small, yet admittedly scary, film called Peeping Tom, directed by Michael Powell. It was released only a few months before Psycho, but didn’t have nearly the same impact on audiences, or critics. Psycho soared to the top, and Peeping Tom was left to be later rediscovered and revered. Hitchcock, without intention, birthed a new era of horror film that wouldn’t come into its prime until 1974 with the release of Bob Clark’s Black Christmas.
Black Christmas redefined what Hitchcock had started, and set the rules in stone: a mentally unhinged masked killer stalks attractive teens and picks them off, one by one, in creative ways. After Black Christmas, then came John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), which cemented the popularity of the genre. After Halloween was a critical and financial success, studios ran with the idea that they could make money selling “dead teenager movies” (a term coined by Roger Ebert) to live teenagers. They were right, and in 1980, the first studio-backed slasher film was released. It was May 9th, and it was Friday the 13th.
It’s 1958 at Camp Crystal Lake. There’s a sing-along going on, but two of the counselors are, shall we say, less than interested. They sneak off to a quiet room to have sex, but don’t know that someone is watching them. They are murdered, and by the time anyone knows anything happened, it’s 1979 and the camp is being re-opened for the summer. A young woman named Annie (Robbi Morgan) stops into a local diner and asks for directions to the camp and gets probably the weirdest stares she would ever see. She hitches a ride and our film finally gets underway. What follows is a strange ride, that’s barely a ride at all. It’s more like a Sunday drive, transported into a film. Some movies can get away with being completely unhinged and making no sense at all. That’s exactly what the first Friday gives us, and that’s what saves it from its own mediocrity – the simple fact that it’s too simple for its own good; so simple that things don’t even add up in the end.
To be honest, rewatching the film (as I do every year on Friday the 13th, just like I do with Halloween on, well, Halloween), there isn’t much I can do to praise the film. The performances are thin, as is the screenplay, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense sometimes, but some films get excused for their flaws simply for their impact on the world around them. This is one of the originals of its kind, and the first to be backed by a major studio. It spawned ten sequels and continues to entertain audiences around the world. Sometimes, being bad is the best way to be good. That sounds like a Lady Gaga lyric.
I feel like I’m having trouble saying clearly what I mean. Friday the 13th is a bad film, but it started something great. So, even though it’s a bad film, because it gave us something that’s so much fun, it gets a pass, and a good review, simply because it delivers on its promises. And, despite being poorly performed and psychologically unsound, it’s way too much fun to pass up every now and then. To my readers, it shouldn’t be a secret anymore that the horror genre is my favorite, for several reasons, and I’ll defend slasher movies until I myself get slashed. Randomly, one or two will pop up here and there and be genuinely astonishing films; Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) is a masterpiece, and Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers (2008) re-set the bar for me of horror in general, but, for the most part, slasher movies exist for one purpose: audience entertainment. They’re often not very scary, and each one seems to up the last in the creativity of the killings, but as long as there’s an attractive and unnervingly jerk-ish teenager being killed by a seemingly unstoppable man in a mask, audiences will go in droves. That says something. What does it say? That audiences don’t know the difference? Well, most of the time you’d be right, but, to me, it also says that the power of the genre is formidable, and unstoppable, just like the killers these films portray.
I try to judge films in a general way. I don’t have to enjoy the film to recognize its importance or its worth. I try to judge films based on what they promise, what they deliver, and how well they deliver it. Then I can get into the performances, direction, effects, writing, and all that. Friday the 13th is a film that delivers what it promises: kids getting killed in creative ways. Sure, the acting is bad, but so is the acting in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and people seem to let that go because of the film’s impact and disposition (as if the movie might come after them if they criticize it). The screenplay of Friday is thin, but not a lot is happening anyway. I’ll give the director this: he’s studied his predecessors. There are structural shades of Psycho, and many pieces of Halloween. Does he live up to what he tries to emulate? God, no, but the effort pays off in the long run. That’s why there are ten sequels that still make money.
If you ever watched an old quiz show called I’ve Got a Secret (1952-1967), then you’ve seen the only other thing of consequence in which Betsy Palmer has ever been involved. She plays Mrs. Vorhees, the mother of the young boy who drowned. I can’t tell if her over-the-top and ridiculous performance is intentional, but if it is (really, even if it isn’t), she’s the shining light of the film. It’s a performance so wildly un-reigned that you can’t help but be astounded by it. Pure theater. Pure camp. Every time she delivers her lines, I expect Jon Lovitz to pop out and yell “Acting!” And for an added bonus, Kevin Bacon is in it; only for about fifteen minutes, but still, his degrees of separation pretty much started here.
Contact the author: ScottMartin@MoviesIDidntGet.com